This Saturday, “Samurai Jack” will come to an end, 16 years after it first began.
The show made its long-awaited return in March. Although it had been 14 years for us, for Jack himself, it had been 50. During that time, the wandering samurai went through several traumatic events that left him without his sword, his optimism and his humanity. This change of tone allowed creator Genndy Tartakovsky to forego the original show’s episodic format in favor of a serialized journey.
As a result, we got an emotionally harrowing tale of a worn-down Jack, who has by now gone full Mad Max, riding a motorcycle and shooting guns. He fights his suicidal guilt over not only failing to return to the past to save his family, but also failing to save those who have fallen victim to the rule of Aku (now voiced by Greg Baldwin). Meanwhile, Jack must confront and face newcomer Ashi (Tara Strong, a.k.a. Timmy Turner), a woman with a traumatic past who is more than capable of kicking Jack’s ass. Together, they endure many misadventures that allow us to ease back into the wonderfully weird world of our favorite time-displaced samurai.
Notably, the switch from plain old Cartoon Network to the Adult Swim time slot allowed the show to be grittier, bloodier, more emotionally wrenching and gave us the line, “Woah, what a freak. Looked like a talking penis,” from Tom Kenny (the voice of Spongebob Squarepants).
This change in tone is welcome, as everyone who watched “Jack” as a child (myself included) have all grown up. While I wouldn’t say we were hungry for guts and gore (which this season has used sparingly), we certainly came to expect something more engrossing that would justify the series’s 13-year absence. We got it.
Holy shit did we. But the show’s return is also indicative of a current trend in the television landscape: the appeal to nostalgia.
No-brainer, right? If it was popular once, why not bring it back (cough someone renew “Firefly” dammit cough)? We’re seeing the likes of “Twin Peaks,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Voltron,” “24,” “Arrested Development,” “Ben 10,” “Dragon Ball Super,” “Young Justice,” et cetera, et cetera, coming back from the grave (or at least from the line at the morgue). All of these shows are either revivals or sequels of a once-popular franchise that has been kept alive via an intravenous stream of fan demand. The market for nostalgia is exploding.
You can see this pretty clear within season five of “Jack” itself. Although technology has marched on (everything is animated digitally), the show’s visual style has stayed almost exactly the same, despite Taratovsky having experimented with other styles and formats. There’s an episode where Ashi runs into a whole plethora of characters from the original run of “Samurai Jack.” The re-animated flashback scenes are staged almost exactly like the original versions, setting up the viewer for an emotional reminiscence before eventually getting back to the action at hand.
Basically, TV shows have discovered that the best way to rein us in is tossing a barbed lasso around our hearts and memories. As cheesy and stupid a metaphor as that sounds (you can see why I am not a poet), it sure as hell works. The last two “Star Wars” movies made more than a billion dollars at the box office. So did “Beauty and the Beast.” There’s even a “live-action” “The Lion King” coming up and I will bet my firstborn — whenever they come into existence — that it will make just as much money as the aforementioned films.
Is this a bad thing? Not necessarily. We get to see the stories of stuff we love re-imagined and the people who took the effort of others and gave it a new coat of paint get a shitload of money … hm.
Okay, let’s look at it another way. These continuations of our childhoods allow us, I believe, to stop and reflect for a moment on how we’ve grown. We can see how culture has aged with us; we get to reflect on why we fell in love with these shows in the first place. Or maybe we’re just children in the bodies of college students. If so, I’d like to propose a resolution to A.S. that we place a giant ball pit in front of Storke Tower.
Anyhoo, where was I? Ah, right. This Saturday, “Samurai Jack” will end. How? Who knows? But after so many years, many of us will gain closure. We will get to see a journey we’ve been watching since 2001 finally come to an end, along with a chapter of our childhoods. There better be gallons of blood all over the screen.
Alex Wehrung clearly has no idea what the hell he is talking about and it’s a wonder we haven’t fired him yet.